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Amanda Vela, Senior VP of Region 300 Stores, Target. Photo by Ethan Yizong Xie

Taking a giant step toward growth and prosperity in South Dallas, leaders from the nonprofit Forest Forward and members of the community gathered April 4 to break ground on the historic 75-year-old Forest Theater, marking the start of major renovations and an expansion to the iconic landmark.

A proud beacon of hope in Sunny South Dallas for decades, the Forest Theater was known in its heyday as a mecca of art, music and community gatherings. Opened in 1949, it was a treasured hub that welcomed legendary artists such as Tina Turner, Prince, Sidney Poitier and Gladys Knight & the Pips.

“The groundbreaking at the Forest Theater symbolizes community partnership and collaboration at it’s very best – because when we come together to work toward a common vision, we are unstoppable,” said Elizabeth Wattley, president and CEO of Forest Forward. “A project of this magnitude cannot be done alone but will only thrive with the buy-in and support from the entire community.”

Cheered on by a crowd of 700-plus attending the groundbreaking block party, leaders pledged to return the iconic Forest Theater to its glory but also to make it an anchor for a massive revitalization program for South Dallas. The Forest Forward vision includes re-establishing the theater as a thriving neighborhood anchor and versatile arts center, creating cradle-to-college education pathways with Dallas ISD through the formation of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Arts Academy, and developing mixed-income housing surrounding the theater.

A highlight of the evening came as Wattley announced that Margot Perot and her family had donated $1 million to the Forest Forward initiative.

The theater’s renovation is an integral part of Phase I of a $75.215 million transformative infusion of resources into the heart of zip code 75215 in South Dallas, creating a vibrant new core for the City of Dallas. Phase I will not only reinstate the Forest Theater to its original elegance but will also include a major addition. Once complete, the theater complex will yield 66,000 square feet encompassing a 13,000-square-foot arts education hub; a 1,000-plus seat performance hall; a multi-use, 200-seat studio theater; a recording studio; and amenities such as a café, restaurant and roof-top feature. Renovations are expected to be completed by December 2025.

“The Forest Theater is the result of a successful private-public partnership that will serve as a decisive catalyst for not only economic development and growth but arts education and much-needed affordable housing,” said U.S. Representative Jasmine Crockett (TX-30). “Forest Forward’s remarkable $75 million vision – focused upon an often-forgotten community – has the potential to reimagine and bolster Sunny South Dallas, positively affecting generations to come.”

Located on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the Forest Theater will feature lower-floor, mezzanine and upper-balcony seating; a large stage and orchestra pit; concessionaire areas; a lush lobby; box offices and more. The Forest Theater’s popular marquee sign, known for its distinctive neon-green tower topped with a red ball, will be refreshed with new color and lighting.

The design architect for the Forest Theater project is HKS, and the co-general contractors are the Linbeck Group and Con-Real Construction. Managing the construction process is The Projects Group. The Forest Theater renovation is expected to achieve a targeted 75% MWBE (Minority/Women Business Enterprise) participation goal.

Dignitaries participating in the ceremonies were U.S. Representative Jasmine Crockett, State Senator Royce West, State Representative Venton Jones, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price; Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson and Dallas City Council Member Adam Bazaldua. Also delivering remarks were Forest Forward board chair Matrice Ellis-Kirk and board members Linda and Jon Halbert, Forest Forward president/CEO Elizabeth Wattley, andAmanda Vela, senior vice president for Region 300 stores, Target.

Additionally, numerous grass-roots leaders from Southern Dallas manned shovels and helped turn over the first ceremonial scoops of dirt.

“The renovation of The Forest Theater is more than just revitalizing a historically significant structure," said Dallas City Council Member Adam Bazaldua. "Investing in and highlighting the theater’s historic significance is symbolic of the commitment of so many, to preserving South Dallas’ History while investing in new resources and assets for the community to grow. I am proud of the work that Forest Forward has already done, but even more proud and excited to continue working with them and seeing this project come to fruition.”

The block party entertainment featured local performers including the South Dallas Concert Choir, Spaceship Ohaysis, JB Dance Group and Big Tuck. Dallas ISD’s Lincoln and James K. Madison high schools competed in a “battle of the bands,” and local comedian Nanette Lee hosted and performed a stand-up routine.  

The major sponsors of the Groundbreaking/Block Party are Target and HKS, and key sponsors include Linbeck Group and Con-Real Construction, Bank of Texas, TEGNA/WFAA, Comerica, State Fair of Texas and The Projects Group. Other supporters included United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, Froswa Booker-Drew, Rise 360, Priscilla R. Stern Memorial Literacy Fund, Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church and The Shops at Redbird.

Wattley closed the program announcing there is still time to be a part of history by supporting the Forest Forward vision. The “Forest Fund” – also known as the “People’s Campaign” – is designed to engage and amplify community support, offering a 5-to-1 match for donations. Learn more at ForestForward.org.

Overcoming a challenging history, beloved Forest Theater will soon return to life, spurring changes

The Forest Theater has a rich and diverse history. It was built in 1949 by Karl Hoblitzelle, the successful developer of the Majestic, Lakewood and Inwood theaters. At the time, Forest Theater served a predominantly Jewish population who resided in South Dallas. 

In the early 1950s, construction of US Highway 175 adjacent to the Forest Theater began, causing the demolition of 1,400 homes, dividing neighborhoods and sparking white flight. After segregation and redlining took its toll, the Forest Theater eventually transitioned to serve the growing African American population.

After experiencing numerous closures and uses – including being used as a place of worship, a gathering spot for Girl Scouts and an arts center operated by musician Erykah Badu – the Forest Theater has remained largely vacant since 2009. In 2017, it was acquired by a philanthropic couple committed to equity in the arts and education, and Forest Forward later obtained ownership.

Currently, as part of the Texas Department of Transportation’s S. M. Wright Phase II project, the freeway is being converted into a six-lane, street-level boulevard with traffic signals. Overpasses will be removed, and landscaping and sidewalks will be added to the boulevard, returning it to the walkable neighborhood it once was.

The Forest Forward vision unveiled: Improving outcomes for children, residents and families

Founded in 2017, Forest Forward’s mission is to drive equitable development and economic mobility and improve outcomes for children, residents and families of the South Dallas community. This is particularly important because, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an individual’s zip code predicts life expectancy more than their genetic code. The life expectancy in the 75215 zip code is 67 years, the lowest in the Dallas area.

The Forest Forward vision is the result of thousands of hours of direct input and involvement from members of the South Dallas community. Early on, Forest Forward leaders met – and listened closely – to everyone from families living in South Dallas for decades, to community and faith-based leaders, business owners and educators, to artists, performers and even children. Embraced by the community, Forest Forward is a grass-roots initiative at heart that represents the invaluable insights, ideas and dreams of those who live, work, learn and play in South Dallas.

The Forest Forward vision already has attracted major funding from the W. W. Caruth, Jr. Fund at Communities Foundation of Texas; The Rees-Jones Foundation; Jon and Linda Halbert Foundation; Constantin Foundation and the Hoblitzelle Foundation. The Mellon Foundation was the first national donor to contribute to Forest Forward.

The Forest Forward 75215 Capital Campaign focuses on three key pathways to spearhead the community revitalization process.

  • Theater and cultural center. The Forest Theater will serve as a neighborhood anchor with a 13,000-square-foot arts education hub featuring a 1,000-plus seat performance hall, multi-use black-box space, recording studio, café, restaurant and roof-top feature.
  • Cradle-to-college educational pathways. Forest Forward has partnered with Dallas ISD to convert the Martin Luther King Jr. Learning Center into the Martin Luther King Jr. Arts Academy for pre-k through 8th graders. The renovation includes more than 25,000 square feet of new construction and 7,800-plus square feet of improvements. The Academy will offer a STEAM-based curriculum (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) and utilize the restored Forest Theater for courses and educational offerings.
  • Mixed-income housing. With a focus on minimal displacement of residents and preserving affordability, Forest Forward aims to build 150-plus units of mixed-income housing surrounding the Forest Theater.

 

The Forest Theater is located at 1920 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Dallas, 75215. For a video on the history and future plans of the Forest Theater, go here. To make donations, volunteer, sign up for the newsletter and more, visit ForestForward.org.